The Purpose and Procedure of a Sound-Check Before a Live Performance
The sound-check is carried out for two reasons:
- To ensure that all microphones and other inputs are working and correctly connected (this is also known as a line
- To set the levels and tonal balance of instruments and voices, both individually and in combination, so that the performance can begin without further adjustment.
IT IS NOT A REHEARSAL.
If the PA system is needed for live rehearsal, time must be made available for it BETWEEN THE SOUND-CHECK AND THE PERFORMANCE (and everyone
involved needs to know about it beforehand, or you may have made the time available but they won't). Although it is usual at the end of a sound-check to check material that needs to be cued (e.g. recorded backing), additional time needs to be set aside if there are a large number of cued events.
Instruments and the Main Mix
A sound-check can take anything from a few minutes to an hour or more. More instruments and performers inevitably increase sound-check time.
Where the sound-check involves a band, instruments are typically checked in the following approximate order:
- Drums/Percussion. With a ‘standard’ kit this will generally be in the order:
- Kick Drum
- Rack Toms
- Floor Toms
- Keyboards (this includes accordions).
- Guitars and other stringed instruments (e.g. fiddles). Acoustic, then electric. Rhythm, then lead.
The sound-engineer will want to establish:
- Is the microphone or other input working and connected to the correct channel? This requires a noise to be made in front of the microphone or on the instrument concerned. Also known as a line check, this can be carried out by technicians before the performers arrive on stage, as long as those instruments with fitted pickups are available.
- How big is the signal? This is necessary to match instrument and microphone signals to the console's normal operating levels. It requires the instrument or vocalist to play or sing at normal performance levels. It is useful at this stage to establish the maximum level the instrument or voice will produce during the performance. If instruments have their own volume controls, it is important that the levels set during sound-check are the same as they will be in performance (there is no point in setting console levels during the sound-check if instrument volume controls are going to be changed later).
- What does it sound like? This requires the instrument to be played while the engineer adjusts the EQ (tone controls). Although a performer may know how he likes his instrument to sound before he arrives, the engineer does not (unless he has worked with that performer before), and will usually need to hear more than a single chord and the advice that ‘it needs more mid’ to get it right. He needs to hear an instrument played as it will be played in performance to get an idea of its sound. An experienced engineer can find an instrument's sweet (and not-so-sweet) spots fairly quickly, but not if the performer keeps stopping before he has had time to listen. When the engineer has finished his adjustments he will be ready to consider comments.
Up to this point one instrument at a time is usually enough. With large ensembles this may be managed more easily if only one performer at a time is on stage.
With ‘standard’ rock bands, most engineers will check in the order detailed above (i.e. Kick Drum, Snare Drum, Hi-Hat, Rack Toms, Floor Toms, Drum Overheads, Full Drum Kit, Bass Guitar, Keyboard, Rhythm & Lead Guitars, Vocals, Whole Band). With other kinds of performance, it is common to check Percussion first, Backing Instruments second, Lead instruments third, and Vocals last.
- How does it all fit together? This requires all the performers together to play typical programme material. If there are cued events (for example, backing tracks to be played at specific points in the performance, or timed lighting changes) these should be both clearly set out in a set list and rehearsed during the sound-check. Where there is a great deal of variety in the programme, a section from more than one style may need to be played, but not the whole set. The performance starts later.
If the venue has a noise-limiter, it is a good idea to check the loudest material in the set at this point, so you can be reasonably confident power will not be interrupted during the show.
The sound-check may involve the main engineer (or, where a separate monitor console is used, the monitor engineer) setting mixes for the performers in their own monitors. In this case the performers will need to tell the engineer what they want in their monitors and what to change if it is wrong (even if he has his own ‘listen’ monitor and can hear what they are hearing, he doesn't know what is right for them). The performance will obviously benefit if performers enjoy performing, and what they hear from the monitors can make a lot of difference. The monitor engineer's aim is to get as close to what the performers want as he can, often in the face of substantial obstacles. It may help to consider the following points:
- The purpose of monitors is for performers to hear themselves, together with any parts they need to hear that are being played by other performers. Performers do not usually need or wish to hear the same mix the audience hears, although this can be easily arranged if requested;
- Before s/he can get the monitor sound right for the performer, an engineer needs to know what the performer wants to hear. This requires clear and unambiguous advice from the performer. ‘Mid’ describes a wide range of frequencies, which includes nearly all the frequencies most critical to the human ear. This means that ‘mid’ is the about vaguest word a performer can possibly use to describe what s/he doesn't like about the monitor sound. If someone asks for ‘less mid’ they could mean the sound is too ‘boxy’ (about 500 - 800Hz), too ‘honky’ (about 1kHz), or too ‘blary’ (about 2kHz). ‘More mid’ might mean the sound lacks body (250 - 630Hz), lacks solidness (500Hz - 1kHz), lacks clarity (1 - 2.5kHz), or lacks ‘cut’ or ‘bite’ (2.5 - 4kHz). An experienced engineer can usually make an educated guess, but guessing can mean getting it wrong a few times before getting it right, as well as taking time when time may not be available. If the tonal characteristics of the monitor sound are vital - as they often are - a performer will benefit from learning to describe what they want as exactly as possible. ‘Can you take about 3dB off at 800 Hz?’ will get there much faster than ‘Can you cut the mid?’.
- Pointing an amplified copy of an instrument's signal directly at its source (which is what monitors usually do) is the best method possible for creating feedback. To get round this problem, the monitor signal often has to be compromised by tonal adjustments (so that instrument, pickup, room and speaker resonance do not reinforce each other). How loud it will go and what cosmetic tonal adjustments are possible may be limited by physics, not by the engineer's competence.
- A microphone will pick up whatever sounds are made in front of it. If the drums are very loud where the singer's head is, they are very loud where his/her microphone is. If the crash cymbals or lead guitar are louder at the microphone than the singer's voice, then they will still be louder when they are processed by the PA system. If the singer needs to hear his or her voice above the back line, simply increasing the monitor level will not help matters. Where the microphone is placed and how it is used will make a much bigger difference to this than all the signal processing in the world. Turning down the back line instruments can also work wonders.
- Colossal volume from electric guitars and other instruments can be great fun for the person playing them. However, intelligibility, separation, and the cohesion and coherence of the whole mix will be greatly improved by keeping backline levels down (paragraphs c. & d. also refer). The engineer can always turn it up, but he can't turn it down if it is too loud before it reaches the desk.
- Less is better: any sound from the monitors will contribute to onstage spill (reducing separation), and will also be reflected into the auditorium by back & side walls. High levels on stage will seriously compromise the front of house engineer's ability to control the sound the audience hears.
- The moral? Having everything very loud on stage will not often improve the show for the audience. You may not think the audience is important. By the same token, they may not think the performers or production crew are.
In most performances the audience will need to come in to the performance space some time before the performance is due to start. This needs to be allowed for between the end of the sound-check and the start of the performance.
Where more than one group of performers is involved (e.g. where there is a support band) the normal practice is to sound-check in the reverse of performance order. This means that the console settings will be immediately ready for the first band or performer. It is important that performers keep to their sound-check times where more than one band is to be sound-checked.
If there are things about the performance the engineer needs to know - like when to cue the interval music, or whether a compere will introduce the band - it is important to tell him before the performance.